By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Asst. Editor
CHEROKEE, N.C. – Tribal Council addressed several pieces of legislation during its regular session on Thursday, Jan. 12 dealing with the issue of cannabis.
The first one was Ord. No. 461 (2022) which was submitted by Qualla Enterprises, LLC, the tribal entity company running the cannabis business for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).
Carolyn West, Qualla Enterprises, LLC board chairperson, said the ordinance sought to change Cherokee Code Chapter 17 Section 7.2 on excluded offenses – an offense constituting a felony – and the time frame in which they would be applied to employment. The current Code stated that 10 years must pass following “any term of probation, incarceration, or supervised release was completed” before it wouldn’t affect a person anymore. Through Ord. No. 461, Qualla Enterprises was seeking to change that to three years.
West noted, “The reason for that is there were individuals that were able to pass the background check and to be employed with the Tribe, but because of the 10-year provision that was in the Code, it was excluding enrolled members from having employment with Qualla Enterprises. Additionally, one of Cherokee’s Core Values is ‘Strong, Individual Character’…we don’t think, as Qualla Enterprise, we should be a barrier to allowing them to work at our facility.”
Yellowhill Rep. T.W. Saunooke made a motion to amend the legislation even further from three years down to no time requirement. “Whenever you get done with probation, you should be done…I would be fine with putting it at zero months – just leaving the requirement that you complete your probation. For it to be three years, we’re extending a probationary period on them on top of what the law set forth for them.”
Forrest Parker, Qualla Enterprises general manager, said, “Often, when people are in a turning point in their life, they may be on probation or in a reflection point, a positive influence on them during that time is a really good thing. Being able to be employed, to be a part of something bigger than themselves, part of a team in those moments that they’re in recovery or they are working through life are very important. That is the spirit that we submitted this in and intended for.”
He added, “The goal with this is to have a thriving, growing business with a team of folks that this is the place that they want to work forever.”
Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy said she supported the idea and went on to say she would like to see Tribal Council pass legislation requesting that the Cherokee Tribal Court expunge certain crimes relating to cannabis.
“I just don’t think that it’s a major crime anymore, and it’s really hypocritical for us to say ‘we have a cannabis project, but if you ever used it and got caught, you don’t qualify’. We want our people to heal.”
Rep. McCoy brought up another cannabis-related issue, “To me, medical is one thing. But, I honestly think that a vote like that or a change like that to the project may require a referendum, an initiative. I feel that way because a lot of our people agree with the medicinal. They understand that, but the adult-use has not been so widely accepted just yet. But, to me, that is the people’s choice. They got to make the decision on alcohol. Let them make the decision on this, but we need to start the process.”
The amendment to take away the time frame was passed. Rep. Saunooke made the motion to pass, Rep. McCoy seconded the motion, and the ordinance was passed 9-3 with Painttown Reps. Michael Stamper and Dike Sneed and Yellowhill Rep. David Wolfe all voting against.
The next piece of legislation was Res. No. 491 (2023), submitted by Tribal Council Chairman Richard French on behalf of Tribal Council, which approved Brooke Coggins, an EBCI tribal member, as appointee to the EBCI Cannabis Control Board. She will serve a four-year term which will expire on Jan. 31, 2027.
Tribal Council previously held a confirmation hearing, as outlined in Cherokee Code Chapter 117 Article III-A, on Dec. 13, 2022. Rep. Saunooke made the motion to pass Res. No. 491, and Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle seconded the motion. The resolution passed 10-2 with Painttown Reps. Stamper and Sneed voting against.
Res. No. 496 (2023), submitted by Qualla Enterprises was tabled during Thursday’s session. The legislation requested the remaining funding for the EBCI Cannabis Project. Tribal Council approved $10 million for the project in December 2022, and Res. No. 496 would approve the remaining $52.9 million.
Prior to being tabled, a lengthy discussion was held which centered around the legality of using gaming funds for the project. Cory Blankenship, EBCI Secretary of Treasury, discussed a memo from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) which prohibits that usage.
He then said the EBCI doesn’t have the money to give Qualla Enterprises without being able to use gaming funds. “There is not a reserve of non-gaming money of $52 million that we could immediately deploy to Qualla Enterprises…if we want to make incremental investments of non-gaming revenues into Qualla Enterprises, then we can do that.”
Rep. McCoy said it is imperative to contact NIGC and get a definitive answer as she believes gaming money can be used. “I think when money comes to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it’s our money and when we decide we’re going to spend it, we spend it.”
She added, “Whenever we’re in here, we’re spending money – the people’s money. But, we’re willing to send hundreds of millions of dollars off this Indian land out there into the real world. I get the business, but this is a business and it’s ours and right here in our home. It’s going to employ our people, and it’s going to take care of things that we need taken care of.”
Chief Sneed commented, “I fully support cannabis…but, I’ll restate what I said last month. We have a fiduciary responsibility to the people and the money of the people. And certainly, in my opinion, this places our gaming operation at risk. Whether we want to say or not, or whether you believe or not, that the NIGC has the ability to take our license or to suspend operations, they absolutely do have that ability. I, for one, am not willing to put that at risk.”
West noted it would be prudent to send tribal leaders and lobbyists to meet with NIGC officials to see if the rule can be amended. “In federal Indian policy speak, we’re in the self-determination, self-governance era, and this would greatly help our project as long as other tribal projects that are going on across Indian Country. It’s not just EBCI; it’s other tribes that are being confronted with this issue as well, and I think that this would be another opportunity for the EBCI to lead a coalition to go and speak with the NIGC.”